Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Istria may be defined by its coastline, but the hinterland warrants a visit too. Rudolf Abraham, co-author of the new Bradt Guide to Istria, invites us to join him in a search for mediaeval frescoes, truffles and an enigmatic pillar of shame. Along the way we discover the many languages of Istria.

article summary —

Josip Zanelli walks slowly with me through the lush grass in front of his stone house to the diminutive Church of Sveti Rok, on the edge of the village of Draguc. This little community in Istria was once an important centre for the cultivation of silkworms, though nowadays it is a quiet, little-visited place with fewer than 70 inhabitants. It deserves to be in the limelight, for Draguc is one of the most photogenic locations anywhere in this corner of Croatia.

Vineyards spill down the hillside towards a lake to the west called Butoniga jezero. The water is framed by a double rainbow that comes and goes as rain clouds slowly give way to sunshine. Standing in the small porch of the church, Josip unlocks the old wooden door with a large key, and waves me inside to look at the cycle of 16thcentury frescoes which decorate the walls of its simple, dimly lit interior — an Adoration of the Magi, a Baptism of Christ and a Temptation in the 23 Wilderness — the painted surfaces illuminated by a small window, and etched with a tracery of Glagolitic script.

The fresco cycle at Draguc is but one of many in the Istrian hinterland, few of which are ever seen by visitors. For while the Istrian coast is well-known for its exceptional cultural sites such as the dazzling UNESCO-listed Byzantine mosaics in Porec, and the Roman amphitheatre at Pula (one of the largest and bestpreserved Roman amphitheatres in the world), the number of visitors who travel inland are few. This is a shame, because the Istrian hinterland is a truly magical place, with picturesque hill towns, impregnable-looking castles and hidden mediaeval frescoes, not to mention some of the best food, wine and olive oil to be found anywhere in Croatia. And all very accessible from the coast — in this compact area, hardly anywhere is more than an hour’s drive from the sea.

The frescoes in Sveti Rok are the work of one Anton of Padova — who was not, as his name might imply, from Padova in Italy, but from a small village called Kascerga, visible on the far side of Butoniga jezero. The artist signed his work in Sveti Rok in both Latin and Glagolitic. A few kilometres away to the south-west is the Church of Sveti Marija na Skriljinah (St Mary of the Rocks) at Beram, just outside Pazin.

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Rudolf Abraham is an award-winning travel writer and photographer specialising in Croatia and Eastern Europe. He is the author of several books including Walking in Croatia, The Mountains of Montenegro, Torres del Paine and St Oswald's Way, all published by Cicerone, National Geographic Traveller Croatia, and is co-author of Istria - The Bradt Travel Guide. He has also updated the Bradt guides to Croatia and Transylvania, and his work has been published widely in magazines and online.

In 2012 his article on the 16th-century pirates of the Croatian Adriatic, the Uskoks, published in hidden europe 34, secured an award for best travel feature from the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild, of which Rudolf is a member. He is also a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Current projects include Croatian Miscellany, an ongoing and deeply personal portrait of this southeast European country, as well as new guidebooks to Croatia's islands, Arctic Norway, the Faroes and the mountains of eastern Turkey.

He lives in London. Find out more about Rudolf's work on www.rudolfabraham.co.uk or visit his blog at rudolfabraham.wordpress.com.

This article was published in hidden europe 40.